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Nutshell 2015

Nutshell 2015
Ian Patterson By

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Nutshell 2015
Bergen, Norway
May 27-30, 2015

For a decade now, Nutshell has been an important engine in promoting Norwegian jazz talent abroad. This year, Nutshell's four-day program presented nine acts of quite diverse stripes to an audience of festival directors, radio programmers, booking agents and journalists from fifteen European countries.

For bands who impress, Nutshell potentially offers a direct route to the stages of jazz festivals and clubs the length and breadth of Europe. In addition, international media spreads the word far and wide—and it's hardly a secret by now—that Norwegian jazz is something to get excited about.

Nutshell takes place under the wing of Nattjazz, one of Norway's oldest jazz festivals, which served up a whole lot more music besides, enabling the international delegates to feast their ears on a score or so of Norwegian bands.

There's a certain poetic symmetry in the fact that Nattjazz should be held in a former sardine factory. Bergen was built on fish, in particular cod, which was first exported from the city in the twelfth century. Fish is still a major export industry in Norway, and so too is jazz.

For a country with a population of just over five million, Norway punches well above its weight when it comes to jazz. It's not just the plethora of jazz festivals that the country sustains but the successful exportation of its numerous groups that in fairly recent times has positioned Norway as the European powerhouse of modern jazz.

It's rare indeed these days, at European jazz festivals of any size, not to encounter at least one Norwegian band on the program. Nutshell, in the historic city of Bergen, has played an increasingly significant role in building the international brand that is Norwegian jazz.

The Old Norse name for Bergen, Bjǫrgvin means 'the meadow among the mountains,' an appropriate appellation for this picturesque city situated on the west coast of Norway. Coming in by plane, the bird's-eye view of the mountains and fjord-peppered Bergen peninsula is as welcoming a vista as you can imagine. Little wonder then, given its idyllic setting and the fish jumping into the nets, that a city was founded here a thousand years ago.

Not quite as old, but firmly established nevertheless is Nattjazz, which was celebrating its 43rd edition. Nutshell—formerly known as Jazz Norway in a Nutshell—is a mere stripling at ten years of age and it was Nutshell that kicked off the music with two showcase bands of contrasting styles.

Day One Showcases

Ola Kvernberg, Kirsti Huke, Erik Nylander

The first showcases were held in the old world opulence of the Bergen Chamber of Commerce. Here, in times past, cigar-chomping traders reclined in armchairs and talked fish. The armchairs—and sea-themed paintings the size of billiards tables—remained unchanged from times past, though the traders gathered here were dealing not in fish, but jazz.

Playing its first concert as a trio, fiddler Ola Kvernberg, vocalist Kirsti Huke and drummer Erik Nylander's set began with a gently hypnotic version of Nick Drake's "Riverman"; Kvernberg's looped ostinato formed the rhythmic backbone, accompanied by Nylander's brushes, while Huke captured the plaintive quality of the original tune. As alluring as Huke's vocals were, the tune only really sparked into life with Kvernberg's lilting solo.

Likewise on Tom Waits' "Lonely" Huke followed the original blueprint fairly closely, with Kvernberg's folksy balladry providing the highlight. Pizzicato fiddle, melancholy vocals and bobbing mallets fused on Abba's "The Day before You Came," which flowed seamlessly into an atmospheric interpretation of Nick Cave's "Into My Arms." On the latter, drone and layered vocals forged ethereal harmonies before gently plucked strings and mallets groove accompanied Huke's captivating lead.

After nearly fifteen years playing on each other's projects there was an obvious empathy in the trio's play, but whether such familiar material will entice Europe's jazz festivals and club owners remains to be seen. With such talented musicians more provocative original material might have produced more stimulating rewards but there was no escaping the beauty in the trio's simple chemistry.

Equinox

The quintet Equinox was also playing its first gig together. In contrast to the stripped-down lyricism of Kvernberg, Huke and Nylander that had preceded it, Equinox served up more groove-based fare, with, at times, a coruscating energy fuelled by bassist Magne Thormodsaeter and the twin-drums engine of Ivar Thormodsaether and Hakon Mjaset Johansen. Saxophonist Kjetil Møster and guitarist Thomas T. Dahl unleashed fiery solos of a free-jazz disposition.

Oddly perhaps, the two drums were positioned side by side, when greater surround-sound dynamism may have been effected by placing them at opposite ends of the stage. Their play was often quite synchronized, and in truth, greater rhythmic tension might have been expected from such a set-up as opposed to purely rhythmic density.

In the midst of the collective bustle pockets of calm led by bass held sway, but they were brief pauses before the pulsating rhythms and honking, biting lead lines reclaimed the ascendancy. In one of the quieter passages Dahl executed a sinewy solo a little evocative of John Scofield.

But it was the thumping unison riffs and pounding unison drums that provided the greatest sonic tensions -raging fires that resolved in brief, fluttering saxophone cadenzas and longer, drawn-out ensemble passages of some lyricism.

This stirring debut performance by a highly charged quintet held the promise of even greater adventures to come down the line. A band to watch out for.

Day Two Showcases

Frida Fredericke Waaler Waervagen/Christian Hundsnes Grovien

It's not all fjords In Norway; increasingly tourists are drawn here to sample the arts, and Norway has a rich historical and contemporary arts tradition to offer, from painter Edward Munch and playwright/theatre director/poet Henrik Ibsen to crime novelist Karin Fossum.

Edvard Grieg, A-ha and Jan Garbarek are just some of Norway's most famous musical ambassadors and the country boasts a folkloric tradition second to none. In addition, Norwegian Black Metal/Death Metal is internationally influential, as indeed is its incredibly varied jazz.

Two contrasting showcase concerts—in conjunction with the Bergen International Festival—served up a taste of classical and contemporary sounds in the stunning surroundings of 19th century violinist/composer Ole Bull's home, a fifty-minute boat ride from Bergen.

First up was internationally renowned cellist Frida Fredrikke Waller Waervagen, who gave a commanding thirty-minute recital of short classical pieces, accompanied by pianist Christian Hundsnes Grovien. Technically impressive, Waervagen's vigorous attack was matched by the emotional nuance of her play. Hundsnes was a sympathetic accompanist and enjoyed the spotlight with a solo recital of a popular Norwegian wedding tune—a moonlight sonata for the fjords.

Christian Wallumrød

Drawing from Norwegian folk, early music, minimalism and jazz, pianist Christian Wallumrod's recordings for ECM have established his reputation as one of the most distinctive pianists of his generation. For this showcase Wallumrød played two strongly contrasting pieces: the first was meditative and minimalist, with the repetitive motif a subtly evolving mantra whose tail notes echoed like drone; the second number was a slow grooving, bluesy vamp evocative of Keith Jarrett.

Ole Bull

As compelling as both showcases were, the figure of the eccentric Bull was omnipresent, his larger-than-life persona reflected in the Arabic, Jewish and European design of the onion domes, balconies, columns and intricate carvings of his home -a spectacular wooden temple to one of Norway's greatest musical figures.

A veritable rock 'n' roll star in his day, Bull toured the world tirelessly. In the calendar year 1836-37, for example, he played no fewer than 274 concerts throughout England and Ireland, and amassed great wealth during his lifetime.

With his money, Bull attempted to set up a utopian Norwegian-American colony in Pennsylvania and also dreamed of building a castle. Both plans got off the ground, but in the end, neither came to fruition. It's perhaps fair to say that Bull's virtuosity, which brought him comparisons to Paganini—rather than his compositional prowess—is the main source of his enduring fame.

Bull was a legendary figure during his lifetime. He carried smelling salts to revive the ladies who swooned in the face of his dazzling musicianship, toured America and Europe on numerous occasions and played on top of the Cheops pyramid in Egypt in 1876, four years before his death at the age of seventy.

His summer retreat, and venue for the two showcase concerts, was built on the island of Lysoen in 1873. A wooden cathedral-esque structure, it took thirty carpenters a year to build. Inspired by the Alhambra and Moorish Granada, the intricately carved walls, beams and arches provided a striking setting in which to appreciate the morning's music.

The showcase concerts of Waervagen and Wallumrød were part of the Bergen International Festival, a two-week banquet of theatre, circus, dance and music running concurrently with Nutshell/Natjazz. For lovers of the arts, the two-week period straddling the end of May and the beginning of June is a great time to visit Bergen, surely one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.

Gard Nilssen's Acoustic Unity

One of Norway's most respected drummers, Gard Nilssen's multiple collaborations reflect his wide-ranging sonic palette. He can illuminate any setting with his ceaselessly inventive drumming, but it's his own projects—either led or co-led—that perhaps reveal most about his driving forces.

Drumming Music (Gigafon, 2013) was a daring unaccompanied venture that saw Nilssen summon the spirits of John Zorn, Zen Buddhism and any number of master percussionists, an epithet that surely also applies to him very well. That recording was an all-acoustic outing and this showcase in Augustin hotel, downtown Bergen, presented the live premiere of his acoustic trio, the aptly named Acoustic Unity.

In a brief set lasting just over twenty minutes, the trio of Nilssen, bassist Petter Eldh and saxophonist Andre Roligheten gave a blistering performance of free-jazz where bone-shuddering rhythms underpinned sinewy tenor explorations.

Furious fast-walking bass, a drumming blitz and Roligheten's scurrying improvised lines created a dense wall of sound, though there was space for a measured, unaccompanied bass solo—an island of repose—before the trio put its foot on the gas once more.

At one point Roligheten played tenor and soprano in unison—reviving memories of Roland Kirk—for harmonic effect rather than mere showmanship. Once more the energy abated, with Nilssen switching to brushes and ushering in a lyrical passage that was striking in the wake of the preceding maelstrom.

The hard-grooving "Adam's Ale," from the trio's forthcoming debut release Firehouse (Clean Feed, 2015) saw Nilssen and Eldh keep a tight rhythmic rein as Roligheten cut loose, his stuttering/charging phrases replicated or embellished by the ever-alert Nilssen. It was thrilling stuff and it all ended just a little too soon.

Obra: Bergen Big Band & Batagraf

The old sardine factory that is the venue for Nattjazz is divided into several rooms of varying sizes and characters. The biggest space, the Rokeriet, hosted the opening concert of Nattjazz 2015, an ambitious tragi-comic piece of theatre—musically backed—that addressed contemporary issues of economic disorder and migration, corruption and chaos. The piece was premiered in a church in 2012, and this arrangement with Jon Balke at the helm was a tribute to former Bergen Big Band leader Olav Dale, who passed away in 2014.

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